Random Thoughts: March 03, 2013

That Troublesome Cat
(or Do Frazzled Young Imps Misinterpret Other Imps?)
by Jasmine Sailing

While glancing at the beginning of this coverage of Tales For Little Rebels, without actually having read it yet, I began contemplating how I might have misread Dr. Seussí The Cat in the Hat as a kid.

I HATED The Cat in the Hat. It wasnít an aversion to Dr. Seuss, I enjoyed the Horton stories, The Grinch, and The Lorax.

The Grinch led to common still-used vocabulary for me, in regards to his heart growing bigger in the end. Sometimes I refer to heart size... more commonly, since my 20s, I refer to something warming my foul black heart. When I do that, itís almost always (if not always) a reference to something relatively minor helping me maintain whatever small amounts of hope for humanity I still have. You can find at least one such reference right here in this Thoughts section (though that was a pretty big one, comparatively, other times it might be something as small as a little brown teddy bear Iíve kept displayed Ė you can see it on a shelf in my living room if youíre ever over here Ė since age 19, as a reminder to myself that sometimes people can be kind without gaining anything from it).

My favourite of Seussí books was Wacky Wednesday (credited as written by Theo. Lesieg, so I didnít know it was a ďDr. SeussĒ book until later in life). I still have my original copy of the book, and I read it to both of my kids often when they were too young to read it.

But The Cat in the Hat irritated me. Today I finally thought ďMaybe that was because I read it as a kid who tended to get into trouble, rather than as a kid who couldíve stood to get into more troubleĒ. From my perspective, this jerk of a cat was causing a lot of trouble for kids and leaving them to freak out about it. Granted he did come through in the end, but I was too hung up on that helpless feeling of being in deep shit for something you didnít cause in the middle of the book to have enough appreciation for the end.

I can think of several reasons for that. 1. I knew how it was to get into a lot of trouble, including for things that I did do. 2. I was the younger sibling by 3.5 years so, even though I later proved to be the trouble-maker out of the 2 of us, as a young kid I was sometimes in trouble I didnít understand as a result of going along with something my sister wanted to do. 3. I definitely learned that helpless feeling of being in trouble over a misunderstanding when Iíd done nothing wrong. And 4. I had remorse over some early elementary school instances of leading people into trouble that I walked away from unscathed (in which case I basically was that troublesome cat, but I didnít come back).

In retrospect, now that Iím bothering to consider it, I can see where The Cat in the Hat could provide a ďlighten the hell upĒ message to overly-good kids who always do as theyíre told... and it simply caused a back-fire with someone who was spending more than enough time being in trouble and who really wouldíve liked to be the recipient of some at least occasional better opinions. Iíll need to reread it to see if Iím about right this (but I suspect I donít have the book because it irritated me so much, unless someone bought it for one of my kids and their copy is still here).

As a kid I was a quiet, shy, introvert who wasnít terribly good at expressing myself, or at defending myself verbally as needed. When I learned to write it helped, even if I couldnít speak out loud worth a damn I could write very detailed long letters and stories... which does 0 good when youíre on the spot in a troublesome situation. I still suck at speaking out loud, but over the years I learned to manage it when absolutely necessary. (This completely discludes my speaking abilities while drunk, thatís always when I extrovert and sloppily catch up on several years worth of talking... now that Iím too unhealthy for that crutch I rather wish Iíd found better ways to cope with my social inabilities).

First I should note in my ďlargely innocent compared to meĒ sisterís defense that I was referring to dopey uneducated little kid actions, like when she said we should give the dogs rootbeer balls (hard candies). I remember the dogs going at them in the yard, and I remember being aware that we were for some reason sneaking. It also happened to be the only time I can remember being told I was in less trouble because I probably just went along with my sister. But I did also hang out with her friends, and some of them were definitely more into trouble-making than she was. Much like I ultimately was, and as a result at least one of those friends invited me over alone for some prank-related fun. I have no idea if my sister was ever aware of that.

When I was a bit older than my sister was during the rootbeer ball incident, I gave the dogs beer and had some good laughs over how they acted. Yes, I do feel stupid about that now.

The list of things I justifiably got into trouble for is long. And itís not half as long as the list of things I got away with. Letís leave it at that for now. Moving hastily onward... ;)

Due to my lack of extroverting skills I can think of situations where I was in explosive trouble over things I hadnít done, and where I never said a word in defense of myself. Generally I would just be scared, hurt, angry, and feeling helpless... which is about how I was picturing the Cat in the Hat situation.

The scariest and saddest ones will always inevitably spring to mind first, but instead of getting into those Iíll mention the time in Maryland (later in life, age 14) when I was fed up enough with the inevitabilities to stomp off beforehand and try to move into a storm drain. You know youíre frustrated and at your limit when you think life in a storm drain would be preferable to dealing with the upcoming false blame situation that you wouldnít be able to do a thing to defend yourself in.

At the time I was living with an exing step-Mom who didnít like me in the least, and who also had a much younger daughter of her own. I liked my little step-sister, even if I did tend to take the blame for anything she did (it was all innocent enough little kid stuff, and my only problem with it was being blamed when I wasnít an innocent little kid who wouldíve gotten into less trouble), but she had a particularly bratty friend who wasnít afraid to lead her into worse trouble knowing that the blame could be easily pinned on me. It was overhearing the brat setting up another such instance that triggered my stomp off. It was a shame, really, because I was having a rare not so trouble-maker stretch of time, but I always seemed to be in trouble anyway.

There were a couple of good things out of the storm drain fit. When some neighbors did manage to find me in the drain (though it was rather well hidden in a riparian strip), the situation had caused enough concern (the exing step-Mom was no doubt concerned over losing the income she was receiving for allowing me to live there) that I got an apology instead of the trouble I wouldíve otherwise gotten... and my English Honors teacher, who had an amazing knack for drawing me out of my shell and will always remain fondly in my memory as a result, understood without issue that I was late on an assignment due to having been in a storm drain instead of at home doing homework. Was it all an instance of blowing up enough to find a sufficient means of communication that didnít require a strong ability to communicate verbally?

(Insert note: the English teacher wasnít a push-over. Other students bitched about her being too tough, I thought she was the best teacher ever. More on that shortly!)

Maybe the best way to sum up how terrible I was at communicating would be by noting that the first time I remember physically hurting myself in an effort to prevent someone else from hurting me was at age 5 Ė in Kindergarten. I was assigned seating next to someone I was terribly afraid of in a listening lab, and my reaction was to dramatically slam myself between the chair and desk as I sat down (pretty well knocking my wind out).

In this day and age, I wouldíve been slapped with all kinds of autistic, etc, labelling... in that day and age, I basically learned that even though the quiet kid can be the easiest one to pick on when they are visible... they can also be invisible when they are peripheral. Unfortunately itís difficult to be peripheral, and I sometimes sat very still and quiet through moments like getting cracked hard on the head with a big rock by someone sitting immediately behind me.

I learned the occasionally useful invisibility trick in Kindergarten or 1st grade, and it probably led to the initial instance of feeling a bit weird about leaving others to hang. We were outside on recess, I was sitting alone at the back of the field with my head down. I missed the aide blowing her whistle, failed to notice the class going back inside. When I did realise I was alone, I walked inside, peeked in the window on the door of my classroom, saw the teacher and all of my classmates going about class normally (which inclines me to think it was Kindergarten, otherwise an empty desk mightíve clued them in). At a loss for what to do, I was afraid of getting into trouble of course, I walked right back out to the back of the field. During the next brief recess I rejoined the class, and no one ever noticed that Iíd been missing.

This bears some resemblance to the alluded to incident of leading kids into trouble and then escaping. In one way, at least.

There were construction poles at the back of the field, near a wooden bench by a baseball circle. I talked a couple of kids into setting the poles up as see-saws with me. Maybe see-saws werenít the most exciting thing in the world... but they were something we didnít normally have. Therefore everyone wanted to join in. The next recess produced a mass of pretty much all of the kids making see-saws and playing on them.

The aide warned us that we would be in big trouble if we did it again. Well, we did it again. I know I was one of the first to start it, if not the first (the back of the field was some of my normally isolated domain, after all). Then we saw the aide charging our way...

Everyone bolted, because we knew we seriously would be in trouble, ran around the back of the field, started running up the other side of the field back to the playground... at which point it dawned on me that the aide would catch everyone somewhere. Especially considering we were all running in a mass. So I dropped out of the panicked herd, and sat down against the fence with my head down. After the aide passed me by I watched her corner and round up the others in the playground. I was about the only person in 2 grades on track C who didnít get into trouble, simply because it was natural for me to become invisible at the back of the field.

That incident was really nothing next to a later one (maybe in grade 3?) where, though I was instigating like a true sociopath, I think my heart was in the right place (standing up for kids who were being discriminated against by other kids)... but boy was the outcome messy, and I was once again the invisible person watching the end mess. Letís not get into that one right now. ;) If it indicated that I was headed in a seriously disturbing direction, that direction was aborted when we moved during the Summer between 4th and 5th grade and I lost every bit of social clout I had quietly and awkwardly struggled to build in my feral elementary environment.

At which point I probably resumed the path Iíd begun by slamming myself into a desk in Kindergarten. We all know about the nice, quiet, neighbor. You need ways to sort out your inner turmoil before it finds a spectacularly messy way to explode.

Fortunately my explosions began right before I moved again, and mostly involved things like slamming an annoying snitch into a wall several times right outside of the school office. She hadnít snitched on me, but everyone was pissed off at her and I generally disliked what she was doing. Yeah, easy target. Possibly the one easier target than me. Believe it or not, I didnít get into trouble for that. I was getting pretty cocky because I knew that everyone in the office knew that Iíd been in a mental hospital due to suicidal ideation the year before. When they called me in I simply needed to say I was having extreme problems (which was true) and I wanted to talk to the counsellor about them. It probably also helped that Iíd been a straight A student before hitting the depths of my emotional nosedive.

Then I moved along to the stretch of really being an overall decent kid for half a year in another state. Iíd thought I would be doomed there, but the first time I walked into the hall to go to my locker I was stopped by my to-be English Honors teacher. She managed to have a conversation with me, at the end of which she marched off to the office and got me switched from normal English to her Honors class. Something about that altered me, and I managed to force myself to speak to all of the students who addressed me over the next few hours. It became the one and only pleasant half year of school I ever had. Far more than a Cat in the Hat, I think I needed someone who could determine that I was a troubled kid with a lot of potential. Too bad it was only something of a half year hiatus from the rest of my life...

So, yes, I think perhaps I should reread The Cat in the Hat from a perspective of ďthese are kids who always do what theyíre told, out of fear of getting into trouble, and who really donít know how to live a little or otherwise confront conformityĒ. Perhaps then Iíll think The Cat is a pleasantly subversive imp, rather than a complete jerk who is going to cause kids to get grounded, or get broken noses, or get Social Services called to take them away, or generally get terrorised in whatever ways, over something they couldnít control.

I do adore real cats as the troublesome, temperamental, independent beasts that they are, after all.

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